Insight Analysis Article: “Kenya’s ‘Westgate Mall’ & al-Shabaab”

Author’s Note: Due to the recent events in Nairobi, the Insight Report deviates from the previously announced schedule to reflect on this current story. The second report into Nigeria will appear next week.

 

The Westgate Mall

Attackers recorded on store CCTV make their way through the halls. Approximately sixteen terrorists were involved in the attacks. Knight Associates Insight analysis: "Kenya's 'Westgate Mall' & al-Shabaab". Analysis of the Westgate Mall incident and history of Somalia's al-Shabaab.

Attackers recorded on store CCTV make their way through the halls. Approximately sixteen terrorists were involved in the attacks.

Kenya’s President Kenyatta may have proclaimed the end of the recent Nairobi siege, but as the investigation into this atrocity commences, in truth the real work is only just starting. The concrete facts are these: that just after midday on Saturday 21 September, members of the al-Shabaab terrorist organisation stormed Nairobi’s upmarket Westgate Mall and began to execute any non-Muslims that they could find.

The current civilian death toll stands at 67, with the mall currently being searched for bodies of both hostages and terrorists. This is not, according to Kenyan officials, expected to rise. But the true success of the attack for al-Shabaab is that they are now a public entity in very much the same way as al-Qaeda entered the collective consciousness after 9/11. Experts and intelligence analysts were aware for years of the threat that al-Shabaab posed, but were seen as a localised danger and not therefore given much consideration outside of specialists in the field. The Westgate Mall attack has forever changed all that. Al-Shabaab are now players on the world stage, in both perception and execution – and the threat they and others pose cannot be ignored.

 

The History of al-Shabaab

Who controls Somalia? Map illustrating current zones of control. Knight Associates Insight analysis: "Kenya's 'Westgate Mall' & al-Shabaab". Analysis of the Westgate Mall incident and history of Somalia's al-Shabaab.

Who controls Somalia? Map illustrating current zones of control.

The militant group was formed, as with Boko Haram in Nigeria, from the core of a socio-cultural organisation – in this case the Islamic Courts Union, a coalition of Islamic sharia courts and youth organisations that formed to oppose the Transitional Federal Government. The Union gained prominence in 2006 when, beginning in July, they commenced an armed campaign that swept across southern Somalia and by December had conquered the capital, Mogadishu. Al-Shabaab’s role in this was to lead the fight against the invading Ethiopian troops, there to aid the Somali government. The name in Arabic means ‘The Youth’ – members were young and often with no education beyond that provided by the sharia system that encompassed them. ‘The Youth’ were however extremely effective, eventually forcing the retreat of Ethiopian troops and maintaining de facto control over practically all of southern Somalia.

At this point in time, the concern of the group was entirely directed inwards to Somalia itself. A strict system of sharia law was established across Shabaab-controlled territory and all outside aid relief, including that from the UN’s African Mission (AMISOM), was forbidden. Yet this was not a situation simply accepted by those involved. A joint mission between AMISOM and the TFG resulted in al-Shabaab’s expulsion from Mogadishu in August 2011 and the swearing-in of Somalia’s first Parliament for twenty years. If the new government expected the retaking of Mogadishu to spell the end of al-Shabaab – unlikely, it is admitted – they were not to be heartened. While losing the capital certainly hurt the organisation, conversely it allowed them to concentrate on their southern Somalian heartland, still very much under their control, and make raids on the Ethopian and Kenyan military forces that had been sent in to eradicate them. The insurgency thereafter developed the appearance of a civil war – with Shabaab ambushing troops, attempting to take hostages (both civilian and military) and struggling for control of the heartland.

Yet in 2012, the loss of the port town of Kismayo – an important financial hub for militant smuggling and trade – seemed to destabilise the group, as did the defection of several major regional and ‘spiritual’ leaders following the ascension to overall command of Ali Zubeyr Godane, whose methods and intentions – of greater cooperation with al-Qaeda, thereby surely bringing more international attention to the group’s activities – were at odds with the wishes of his subordinates. Increasingly decentralised in the manner of al-Qaeda, the terrorists appeared to be losing ground, and control in their own country.

 

Closer Ties With Extremism

The 'Ethiopian Village' cafe, site of one of the Kampala bombings.Al-Shabaab timed the explosives to coincide with the World Cup Final on television.Knight Associates Insight analysis: "Kenya's 'Westgate Mall' & al-Shabaab". Analysis of the Westgate Mall incident and history of Somalia's al-Shabaab.

The ‘Ethiopian Village’ cafe, site of one of the Kampala bombings.Al-Shabaab timed the explosives to coincide with the World Cup Final on television.

But then the Westgate Mall was attacked, revealing al-Shabaab to be arguably as strong as ever, as the lives lost and damage done by a collective of machine-gun and grenade-armed men will attest. This is in part due to al-Shabaab’s formalising of alliances with Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb in 2012, long bedfellows in ideology but now able to access the vast network of men, weapons and finance provided by the larger group. The attack also signifies a shift in tactics by ‘The Youth’ – for so long restricted either by choice or design to Somalia itself, the Westgate Mall is the culmination of their stated intention – fuelled by AMISOM troops continually at war in their land – to attack these states and force them to withdraw their troops.

The first of these were the twin bomb attacks at Kampala, Uganda, in 2010, killing 74, and indeed warnings were given that Nairobi was a high-probability target, given Kenya’s  involvement in AMISOM (some Intelligence reports actually indicated the Westgate Mall as a possible location for an attack). It was clear that al-Shabaab was developing a capability for large-scale attacks outside their heartland, and that the Westgate Mall attack succeeded at all will prompt a lengthy period of analysis and reflection on behalf of the Kenyan security forces. Yet this attack was highly, almost defiantly uncomplicated and untechnical. There was no need to make a bomb or organise simultaneous plans – the commanders were all too aware that pouring machine-gun fire into a heavily-populated building would be effective enough.

The Westgate Mall following the intervention of the military, which did not occur for three hours after the initial attack.

The Westgate Mall following the intervention of the military, which did not occur for three hours after the initial attack.

The attack itself unfolded first over a manner of hours, as the initial force swept through the building, and then days, as those that survived the first Kenyan police assault took hostages and attempted to barricade themselves in. (Escape does not seem to have been on their minds). While far more escaped than did not, the Mall was an ideal target location: heavily populated, patronised mostly by foreigners, easy to corral people inside and to defend, and perhaps more than anything a symbol of how Kenya’s power and perceived elitism over their Somali neighbours are ultimately to no avail. And it will not be the last such attack. Al-Shabaab have previously claimed that they would cease their foreign attacks as soon as troops left Somali soil. One cannot imagine Godane, with AQIM beside him, fulfilling that bargain.

 

Preventive Measures

In light of this tragedy, what can be done to ensure that any repeat of the Westgate Mall will fail? Two main lessons arise. Firstly the value of prior travel intelligence and threat assessments – while one would not normally expect to be targeted in a shopping centre, as compared to the lawless heartland of Somalia, knowing the history, patterns and intentions of all relevant militant organisations in the area may assist in offering insights into their likely movements, and mitigating appropriately. This situational awareness/intelligence should be maintained throughout any length of stay – keeping up-to-date with local news, rumours and warnings can only help in your preparation in case an attack does occur.

The second measure is more practical – if in the country for any length of time, ensure that you maintain a discrete protection detail around you, able to react and extract should the worst happen. Whilst Kenyan police were able to react relatively quickly to the attack and surround the mall, the majority of people died defenceless and relying purely on hiding or escaping, with no way of fighting back. Both private and commercial interests will benefit immeasurably from such protection. Those with business interests especially necessitating local travel should consider this an absolute. The Nairobi and Kampala attacks showed that al-Shabaab are significantly broadening their scope of attack, and if allowed a foothold (for instance, unchallenged entry into the Mall) are extremely difficult to dislodge. When faced with such situations, it is good business practice to have around you those able to effect a quick escape or fight back as the situation demands, as the unpredictability of such militant strikes requires constant vigilance in all locations and situations to minimise the risk of another tragedy.

 

Conclusion

Whatever the ultimate fallout from the Westgate Mall attack, it will not be the last time al-Shabaab make the headlines. Documents recovered after the death of an al-Shabaab top-level commander in 2011 revealed the group had plans to attack hotels and colleges in the United Kingdom, in the manner of the Nairobi attack and the Mumbai hotel shootings of 2008. Not only that, but it represents the latest stage in both the failure of AMISOM and the wider international community to break al-Shabaab’s power – and also a clear statement of intent by Godane, backed up by his al-Qaeda masters, that this manner of large-scale attack is where al-Shabaab’s future lies. If the Westgate Mall was their announcement, then the response is ours.

If you have business in Kenya, Ethiopia or anywhere else where al-Shabaab and AQIM are thought to be operating, contact Knight Associates today to assure your safety and peace of mind.

 

By James Bailey

Geopolitics Analyst Intern – Knight Associates .

 

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